Astrium wins €300million Solar Orbiter contract from ESA

Europe's leading space company, Astrium has been selected by the European Space Agency (ESA) as the prime contractor for the Solar Orbiter mission. The €300million spacecraft will perform close up observations of the Sun. Astrium builds upon its extensive science mission expertise that includes the solar spacecraft SOHO and Ulysses.

Solar Orbiter is the first mission in ESA's Cosmic Vision programme to start its implementation phase and is scheduled for launch in 2017. The mission lifetime will be seven years. Solar Orbiter will study the Sun in detail and its effects on the solar system.

The spacecraft will carry a suite of complementary instruments that will measure the particles, fields and waves of the plasma through which it travels, and at the same time make observations of the Sun's surface and outer atmosphere, the photosphere and corona.

At its closest point Solar Orbiter will be closer to the Sun than the planet Mercury, at a distance of 0.28 Astronomical Units ( 42million km), in an orbit that takes it out of the ecliptic plane. From here, it can perform long-duration observations of the same region of the Sun's surface, and have visibility of the Sun's polar regions. It will be one of the closest approaches of the Sun by any spacecraft. To position itself in this challenging orbit, Solar Orbiter will make a complex series of gravitational-assist fly-bys past both Earth and Venus.

Design challenges include accommodating and resourcing a large suite of cutting edge instruments and ensuring stringent magnetic and molecular cleanliness to enable the most sensitive scientific measurements to be made effectively.

At its closest approach, where sunlight is thirteen times more intense than it is for satellites orbiting the Earth, Solar Orbiter must survive intense thermal radiation and protect its instrument suite, while at the same time allowing those instruments to observe the Sun. To achieve this, the design includes a heat shield and incorporates new high-temperature solar array technology.

The Sun can cause major problems for satellites and Earth based systems as it releases bursts of high-energy particles (Coronal Mass Ejections), which can disrupt electrical power distribution systems, cause computers to crash, damage satellites and endanger astronauts. Solar Orbiter will provide scientific data to better understand the mechanisms on the Sun that cause these violent and disruptive outbursts.

Solar Orbiter builds on hugely successful missions such as SOHO and Ulysses that have provided remarkable insights into the workings of our Sun. Like those missions, it is a collaboration between ESA and NASA. A launcher will be provided by NASA and one instrument and one sensor will be contributed from the United States.

Justin Cunningham

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